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Critical Thinking

How to Teach Critical Thinking

October 4, 2013 by Dr. Jon Warner in Critical Thinking

How to Teach Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is often suggested to be something which should be taught at school, college and in the workplace. However, in practice this is rarely the case and it remains a subject which is taught sporadically and only to a few leaders in the occasional short course perhaps.

At a simple level, critical thinking involves us in making an evaluation or judgment about what we hear or see. For many people, this can just mean making a decision based on the presenting evidence within a relatively short time frame (or within a reasonable period in a busy life). This approach may work effectively much of the time, especially when the decision has minimal impact on our life. However, the regular use of a “lightly” examined or even “unexamined” approach may lead to a complacent habit when we hear all arguments and if we are not careful, we may end up with the “unexamined life” that Socrates warned us against over 2500 years ago. In these circumstances, we may easily become hostage to other people’s interpretations of what we should do or how we should live, and we may come to not much like what they have chosen and the impact on ourselves. For this reason alone, we may want to build our own critical thinking skills to a higher level and develop better and more evolved habits using different critical thinking approaches, no matter what the decision, or argument.

Although they are by no means fixed and non-over-lapping, as we think about how we should teach critical thinking, it is important to determine what stages people’s development path is likely to follow (accepting that not all individuals will start at level one of course). The following 5 stages are representative of the journey from little or no use of Critical Thinking to it being regularly used or to a point where it becomes an almost unconscious ability.

Stage One: The “Unreflective” Thinker

Unreflective thinkers often fail to recognize thinking as involving the specific sub-categories of concepts, assumptions, inferences, implications, points of view, etc. Unreflective thinkers are therefore often largely unaware of the appropriate standards for the assessment of thinking such as clarity, accuracy, precision, relevance, logicality, etc.

Stage Two: The “Selective” Thinker

Selective thinkers recognize that they have basic flaws or limitations in their overall mental analysis of issues and make initial attempts to better understand how they can take charge of and improve it (usually by asking more questions). Based on this initial understanding, they consequently begin to modify some of their thinking approaches, to make them progressively more systematic.

Stage Three: The “Practicing” Critical Thinker

Thinkers at this stage have a sense of the habits they need to develop to take charge of their thinking. They not only recognize that problems exist in their thinking, but they also recognize the need to attack these problems globally and systematically. Based on their sense of the need to practice regularly, they are actively analyzing their thinking in a number of domains. Practicing thinkers also recognize the need for systematic Critical thinking and to internalize this into becoming a habit.

Stage Four: The “Evolved” Critical Thinker

Evolved Critical thinkers have a good appreciation of the potential biases and stereotypes which may exist in their own mental processes. They therefore continually strive to be much more analytical and fair-minded in approach. Evolved thinkers are typically knowledgeable of what it takes to regularly assess their thinking for clarity, accuracy, precision, relevance, depth, breadth, logic, significance etc. and have keen insight into the relationship between thoughts, feelings and desires.

Stage Five: The “Master” Critical Thinker

Master Critical thinkers not only have systematically taken charge of their thinking processes in general, but are also continually monitoring, revising, and re-thinking strategies for continual improvement of their thinking approach. They have deeply internalized the basic skills of thought, so that Critical thinking is, for them, both conscious and highly intuitive.

Given these five progressive levels, teaching critical thinking then should involve designing a learning strategy/process which allows individuals to move from one stage to the next as they are ready to do so. This means that particular reading, activities, puzzles, case studies, tools and other learning methods should be designed for each of the first four stages in particular (helping to stretch individuals just enough at each point). What these methods could or should specifically look like is the subject of a future article on critical thinking.

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About Dr. Jon Warner

Dr. Jon Warner is a prolific author, management consultant and executive coach with over 25 years experience. He has an MBA and a PhD in Organizational Psychology. Jon can be reached at OptimalJon@gmail.com

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About the Editor and Primary Author

Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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